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Akst: Pussy Riot deserves to go free

Members of a female punk band "Pussy Riot"

Members of a female punk band "Pussy Riot" (from left-to-right) Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, sit inside a glass enclosure during a court hearing in Moscow. (August 8, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Tyrants are right to fear artists. If you read Milan Kundera--try "The Joke"--you can see why he scared the living daylights out of the communists who ruled what was then Czechoslovakia. A regime that can't take a joke, or a little critical caterwauling from the odd band of rockers, has every reason to worry about its durability.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose despotic instincts have been on display for most of his 12 years in office, might want to think about all this now that the trial of Pussy Riot has adjourned (a verdict is due Aug. 17). Pussy Riot is a feminist punk rock band consisting of three women who, decked out in their trademark balaclavas, burst into a Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow and launched a 40-second performance that included dancing and the refrain, "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away."

Of course, nobody should go around barging into churches like this, but it should be noted that the church's hierarchy and the Putin regime are pretty darn close. Putin, like Boris Yeltsin before him, recognized that reversing the suppression of the church, which was official policy under the communists, could win him the support of church leaders and a large segment of the public.

So some kind of punishment might be warranted for Pussy Riot -- perhaps a modest fine, or a day spent listening to Barry Manilow in some grimy government office. But like so many others of dictatorial bent, Putin couldn't be satisfied with a token penalty when someone had given him a chance to crack down. Presumably determined to make an example of the unrepentant young women, who've already been behind bars for months, he's instead made himself look like the heavy, with Madonna and Bjork weighing in on behalf of the three defendants. Amnesty International has called them prisoners of conscience.

Russia is a profoundly conservative place. Smacking around Pussy Riot may play in whatever is the Russian equivalent of Peoria, but public opinion toward them appears to be softening, and Putin himself, perhaps sensing which way the wind is blowing, has suddenly said the women should not be punished "too harshly." Since Russia doesn't have much of an independent judiciary, there's every reason to hope the judge in this case will listen. Artists are always a potential threat to dictators, yet rarely one best managed by suppression.

Do yourself a favor, Vladimir, and free Pussy Riot.

Pictured above: Members of a female punk band "Pussy Riot" (from left-to-right) Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, sit inside a glass enclosure during a court hearing in Moscow. (August 8, 2012)
 

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